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State Department blocks key diplomat from appearing in impeachment probe

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, U.S. Ambassador to the Belgium Ronald Gidwitz and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland listen on as President Donald J. Trump addresses Tri- Mission Brussels during a meet-and-greet in Brussels, Belgium on July 11, 2018. (U.S. State Department)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A lawyer for the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland says the State Department has ordered him not to appear for a scheduled interview before lawmakers in the House of Representatives as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Attorney Robert Luskin said in a statement on October 8 that Sondland was required to follow the State Department’s order.

The attorney said no reason was given for the order to not give a deposition to lawmakers from the House Intelligence, Foreign, and Oversight and Reform committees. Sondland had previously agreed to appear before the lawmakers.

Luskin says Sondland “is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify” and that he “believes strongly that he acted at all times in the best interests of the United States.”

The move raises tensions between the White House and congressional Democrats conducting a probe that could lead to the impeachment of the president, something that has happened only twice in U.S. history.

Trump appeared to confirm the action on Twitter, blasting the Democrats’ probe as a “kangaroo court.”

“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see.”

Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee called blocking Sondland’s testimony additional evidence of obstruction of justice.

Sondland, a political appointee and long-time Republican donor, has no prior diplomatic experience.

Ulrich Brechbuhl, a State Department counselor, is also scheduled to give a deposition, but there was no immediate word on whether he would still do so.

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv who was abruptly recalled to Washington in May, is scheduled to testify on October 11, although her appearance has been delayed once already.

Sondland has become embroiled in the impeachment inquiry that has focused on Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, and specifically a July 25 phone call the U.S. president had with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Democrats accuse Trump of pressuring Kyiv to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son’s involvement with a Ukrainian energy firm by withholding military aid that had already been approved by Congress.

A whistle-blower complaint claimed that Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country” in the 2020 U.S. election given that Biden is perceived as a leading Democratic candidate to face the incumbent Republican president.

Leading up to the call, Trump had withheld nearly $400 million in military aid and White House staff had later allegedly sequestered a record of the discussion between the two leaders in a computer server meant for highly classified material.

According to the whistle-blower complaint, Sondland and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker met twice with Ukrainian officials “to help Ukrainian leaders understand and respond to the differing messages they were receiving from official U.S. channels on one hand and from [Trump’s personal attorney] Mr. [Rudy] Giuliani on the other.”

Trump has denied any wrongdoing and has called the impeachment inquiry a “scam” that “makes it harder to do my job.”